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Professor discusses political polarization with Seattle alums

Hanson’s presentation was part of DU’s lead-up to the first 2012 presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 3 in Magness Arena at the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness. For more debate-related events, visit DU’s 2012 Presidential Debate website. Have questions or a debate-related event you’d like to add to the official event calendar? Contact Winter Wall Walker at 303-871-4672.

Americans must reform the political system—primary elections in particular—if they want to end the current trend of polarization in Congress, says DU political science Professor Peter Hanson.

Hanson — a onetime staffer for former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — told more than 20 Seattle-based DU alumni on Sunday that we can take several steps to erode the divisive climate that prevails in the U.S. Congress.

In his presentation, part of the University’s Lifelong Learning Program, Hanson credited several developments for contemporary political polarization. For one thing, he said, people who vote in primaries tend to represent the most ideologically devout members of their parties, according to research.

“People choose nominees directly,” Hanson said. “It is the true believers — the diehards — who show up for primaries. Those diehards are more ideologically pure than they would have been in the ’60s.”

That’s one of the reasons why, during his quest to become the Republican nominee for the presidency, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was jeered when voicing his support for the seemingly anti-Republican DREAM Act, which would grant in-state tuition fees to undocumented immigrants attending U.S. colleges and universities, Hanson said.

History has helped better define and polarize the two-party system, Hanson said, noting that the success of the New Deal created class politics in the South. In the aftermath of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s social programs, poor voters identified more with Democratic ideals, while the wealthy tended to vote for Republicans.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s pushed this separation by making Democratic leaders more responsible to black voters. In response, they broke alliances with the party’s remaining Southern segregationists. Those voters were largely absorbed into the Republican Party.

Today, studies show that people move—and stay—where they feel politically comfortable and accepted. As a result, state representatives from the house districts in these ideological hot spots are almost guaranteed reelection, Hanson said.



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